In California’s court system, black men are significantly less likely than white men to be offered treatment instead of prison time when arrested for drug-related offenses, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. And that’s even after California’s Proposition 36, a ballot initiative that passed in 2000, made it easier to divert nonviolent drug offenders to treatment with probation.
The study found that black men are 27 percent less likely, and Hispanic men 16 percent less likely than white men to be diverted to drug treatment instead of prison. That’s after controlling for differences in criminal history and the offenses involved in each arrest, before which disparities were even larger.
But data from before and after passage of Proposition 36 show some way forward. Researchers found that racial disparities dropped with the implementation of Prop 36, which mandated that treatment be offered to offenders with fewer than three previous drug convictions and no violent convictions. That was enough to drop the difference between black and white men by five percent, and the difference between white and Hispanic men by ten percent.
While mandatory minimum sentences often force judges to give draconian sentences to low-level drug offenders, the authors of this study suggest that requiring judges instead to permit diversion into treatment could actually be a tool to reduce disparities. Prop 36’s standardization of sentencing may be responsible for reducing the role of biases, and giving all offenders a fair shot at being treated instead of imprisoned, suggesting. This may bode well for the success of a federal pilot program to encourage more diversion, and suggests that other states could reduce their own disparities with similar measures.
Even in California, Prop 36 does not apply equally to all drugs. Cocaine and heroin possession, among other drugs, are automatically felonies in California, and a past felony conviction bars offenders from participating in Prop 36. In October, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have addressed that, by allowing prosecuting attorneys to decide whether to charge any personal drug possession as a misdemeanor. Dependence on drugs like cocaine and heroin is widespread in American prisons where more than half of inmates have a history of substance abuse and addiction. And many systems don’t offer medical treatment for addiction, despite the drastic reduction in recidivism it can bring.